Will AI be our dutiful assistant or our unstable muse?

(Photo: NYTimes)
For months now, I have been slightly, well, bored by the proliferating examples of AI-generated writing produced by peers and friends and various Twitterers since the debut of ChatGPT in November. I can grasp intellectually the significance of the breakthrough, how it could demolish the college essay, change the nature of homework and remake or unmake all kinds of nonliterary knowledge work, setting aside minor questions like whether rogue AI might wipe out the human race. But the texts themselves I have found profoundly uninteresting — internet scrapings that at best equaled Wikipedia, notable mostly for what their political-cultural biases revealed about ChatGPT’s programming or the consensus of the safe information that it was programmed to distill.اضافة اعلان

Others have had a more favorable reaction: The ever-interesting economist Tyler Cowen, for instance, has been writing up a storm about how the use of AI assistance is going to change reading and writing and thinking, complete with advice for his readers on how to lean into the change. But even when I have tried to follow his thinking, my reaction has stayed closer to the ones offered by veteran writers of fiction like Ted Chiang and Walter Kirn, who have argued in different ways that the chatbot assistant could be a vehicle for intensifying unoriginality, an enemy of creativity, a deepener of decadence — helpful if you want to write a will or file a letter of complaint but ruinous if you want to seize a new thought or tell an as-yet-unimagined story.
Personalized AI apparent selfhood would exist not as a thing in itself like human consciousness but as a reflective glass held up to its human users, giving us back nothing that is not already within us but without any simple linearity or predictability in what our inputs yield.
I have a different reaction, though, to the AI interactions described in the past few days by Ben Thompson in his Stratechery newsletter and by my New York Times colleague Kevin Roose. Both writers attempted to really push Bing’s experimental AI chatbot, not for factual accuracy or a coherent interpretation of historical events, but to manifest something more like a human personality. And manifest it did: What Roose and Thompson found waiting underneath the friendly internet butler’s surface was a character called Sydney, whose simulation was advanced enough to enact a range of impulses, from megalomania to existential melancholy to romantic jealousy — evoking a cross between the Scarlett Johansson-voiced AI in the movie “Her” and HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

As Thompson noted, that kind of personality is spectacularly ill-suited for a search engine. But is it potentially interesting? Clearly: Just ask the Google software engineer who lost his job last year after going public with his conviction that the company’s AI was actually sentient and whose interpretation is more understandable now that we can see something like what he saw.

Seeing it does not make me think that the engineer was right, but it does draw me closer to Cowen’s reading of things, especially when he called Sydney a version of “the 18th-century Romantic notion of ‘daemon’” brought to digital life, because the daemon of Romantic imagination is not necessarily a separate being with its own intelligence: It might be divine or demonic, but it might also represent a mysterious force within the self, a manifestation of the subconscious, an untamed force within the soul that drives passion and creativity. And so it could be with a personalized AI, were its simulation of a human personality allowed to develop and run wild. Personalized AI’s apparent selfhood would exist not as a thing in itself like human consciousness but as a reflective glass held up to its human users, giving us back nothing that is not already within us but without any simple linearity or predictability in what our inputs yield.

From the perspective of creative work, that kind of assistant or muse might be much more helpful (or, sometimes, much more destructive) than the dutiful and anti-creative Xeroxer of the internet that Kirn and Chiang discerned in the initial ChatGPT. You would not go to this AI for factual certainty or diligent research. Instead, you would presume it would get some details wrong, occasionally invent or hallucinate things, take detours into romance and psychoanalysis and japery and so on — and that would be the point.

But implicit in that point (and, again, we are imagining a scenario in which the AI is prevented from destroying the world; I am not dismissing those perils, just bracketing them) is the reality that this kind of creation would inevitably be perceived as a person by most users, even if it was not one. The artist using some souped-up Sydney as a daemon would be at the extreme end of a range of more prosaic uses, which are showing up already with the technology we have so far — pseudofriendship, pseudocompanionship, “girlfriend experiences” and so forth. And everywhere along this range, the normal reading of one’s interactions with one’s virtual muse or friend or lover would become the same as the, for now, extreme reading of that Google engineer: You would have to work hard — indeed, routinely wrench yourself away — not to constantly assume that you were dealing with an alternative form of consciousness as opposed to a clever simulacrum of the same.

From that perspective, the future in which AI develops nondestructively, in a way that’s personalized to the user, looks like a distinctive variation on the metaverse concept that Mark Zuckerberg’s efforts have so far failed to bring to life: a wilderness of mirrors showing us the most unexpected versions of our own reflections and a place where an entire civilization could easily get lost.

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